Nancy on Nolan

Nancy on Nolan

By Susan Prior

Nancy Underhill is a Brisbane local, a writer, an art historian, a curator; she also helps organise opera schools (the Lisa Gasteen Opera School here in Brisbane), and I suspect, a great deal more. I first met Nancy as I was doing my regular walk early one summer’s morning with my westie, Monty, in tow.

Nancy came down her driveway to collect her newspaper, we nodded and smiled our good mornings, and then she asked me if I knew anyone who could fix broken reticulation systems. Twenty minutes later we were still chatting and I had discovered that Nancy was putting the final touches on a new book, a biography of Sidney Nolan. As a writer and editor myself, you can imagine my barely contained excitement!

Nancy Underhill, photograph used with Nancy's permission.

We swapped business cards and promised to catch up for a coffee, soon, after all the Christmas kerfuffle was over.

Back home, I Googled Nancy, and quickly realised I had been talking to a pre-eminent and very well-respected scholar of Nolan. Nancy was also the foundation head of the Department of Art History at The University of Queensland, where she taught for nearly 30 years.

Months later, Nancy’s book was released and she was out and about giving interviews and talks to publicise it; I had been on a trip to the UK and then started a new job, and we still hadn’t managed coffee.

Sidney Nolan: A Life, photograph courtesy of New South Publishing.

Well, finally, in July, we sat down and I was able to ask her about her book Sidney Nolan: A life (2015), which follows on from two others relating to Nolan, Nolan on Nolan (2007) and Letters of John Reed (2001).

To write Nolan on Nolan, Nancy spent two to three weeks at a time over a period of five years at The Rodd, the Nolans’ manor house on the Welsh border, with Nolan’s widow Mary. She was able to gain access to people, and material – such as private letters, notebooks, diaries, and poems – which others couldn’t. It was logical, then, that she was approached to write her most recent book. At first, Nancy wasn’t much inclined, but eventually Phillipa McGuinness of NewSouth Publishing persuaded her. Scholars of Nolan are so much the richer because of it.

Nancy admits that she struggled with writing the biography. She sent some early proofs to her friend, former ABC managing director and Penguin publisher Brian Johns. His advice was to write her own book, write what intrigues her about Nolan, and have fun – all of which she did. As a result, Nancy has a cameo in the book as well, which, she says, makes it ‘quite interesting’.

One of the things that pleases Nancy is the feedback she has had to the book. ‘Lay people have rung to say, “wow”, and then the academics, my colleagues, are pleased with it too’. Pleasing both audiences is a huge accomplishment.

According to David Rainey (aComment, June 19, 2015): ‘She cuts quickly to the chase and is able to present complex matters in simple, often refreshingly colloquial language.’ Rainey’s review of the book is excellent, and will give interested readers much more information than I have space for here. Suffice to say, this book is a not a studiously academic tome, but it is a great read for anyone who wants to learn about the man and his art.

We turn our conversation to the Nolan work now at MONA in Tasmania, Snake. It comprises 1620 images, each one a work of art, hung together as a polyptych to create a Dreamtime-inspired serpent. According to Nancy, this work was painted over several years in the 1980s. Lord McAlpine, the businessman credited with reinvigorating Broome in Western Australia and a close friend of Nancy’s, supported Nolan for the last decade of Nolan’s life. McAlpine told her that Snake was planned for a development in the Cathedral Gardens, Perth, where it would ‘snake’ around inside a protected walkway as it went up the hill. Onlookers would arrive at what Nancy describes as a ‘hilarious fountain, which was kind of baroque in its Roman mentality, (and) which would have 100 gold budgerigars all spurting water’.

Unfortunately for Perth, and for us, McAlpine went broke and exited stage left. Nancy says, ‘We tried to buy it here (Brisbane) for the library but were a couple of million short’. Largely because of its sheer size, Nolan’s Snake languished in storage for some years until his widow Mary sold it to MONA in 2011, where it now hangs in a purpose-built gallery. I was lucky enough to see it there earlier this year, and it is simply breathtaking.

What I learnt, as a result of a chance conversation about water reticulation at 6.30 one summer’s morning, is incredible. 

Sidney Nolan: A Life is available from the Queensland Art Gallery bookshopFolio Books, and online.

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